Living with the Mentawai

Situated deep in the dense muddy jungles of Siberut island, a tribe of people known as the Mentawai is found surviving and thriving in the jungle. The Mentawai were once head-hunters, using poison arrows and long cruel looking knifes to go about their hunts.

Over the years, as modernisation and religion is slowly introduced, they have become more civilised and more accepting of outsiders but no less ferocious.

Taking a 12 hour ferry ride from Padang, Indonesia to Siberut island and another 2 hour boat ride upriver into the jungles, one would arrive at a certain part of the jungle inhabited by the Mentawai people. 

Instead of forming settlements or villages and living together in the jungle, each Mentawai family consisting of the parents and children will build a wooden house and fend for themselves. The closest neighbour would be at least 45 minutes to an hour trek away. 

Braving the hardships of the jungle, I stayed with the Mentawai people for a week learning their ways  and observing their rituals. What I've seen and learnt has given me a totally new perspective of life and also answered a question I always had since I was a child.

"Why did Tarzan learn to swing from the tree-tops?"

The answer to that particular sophisticated question would be because the jungle floor is extremely muddy! I kid you not, I was practically swimming in waist-deep mud just to get from point A to point B. 

Having Sagu as their staple diet and the occasional meat, most of the children here suffer from Kwashiorkor disease (a form of malnutrition caused by inadequate protein). Children with distended bellies are seen running about looking like pregnant mothers.

Once a fortnight, a saina (domesticated pig) would be slaughtered and dinner that night will be a grand affair! Although most of the Mentawai has been converted to either Islam or Christianity, forms of animal-worship can still be observed. Say for instance, during the slaughter of the saina.

Before a knife is plunged into the neck of the saina, a ritual is done whereby the saina is blessed with a prayer chanted in Mentawai language and flowers stroking the head. Half way through the prayers, the saina is quickly stabbed and as its lifeblood flows out, the light in it's eyes fades..

While waiting for the fire to start, the saina is gutted and the children went ecstatic waiting for the upcoming pork for dinner.

Dinner was indeed a grand affair, or rather as grand as it could get in the jungle without electricity. Dinner was eaten with much gusto and many smiles which became broader as I gave out my portion of boiled pork seasoned with salt.

Through a translator, I asked one of the Mentawai father if given a chance, would he uproot his family, leave the hardships of the jungle and move to a city. He blatantly said no! "The forest has provided for his father, his father's father and will continue to provide for his sons and generations to come. They know every tree, every rock and every vine. Food, medicine and materials can all be procured in the jungle for free. Why leave the beautiful jungle and go to a city where everything is controlled by money..." he passionately said in Mentawai language. 

Before it was translated, I already knew the answer just by seeing the fierce proud gleam in his eyes as he described the jungle and also by observing the tender lovingness in the gestures he made to emphasise that the jungle is part of his family just as much as it is part of him. That is what that defines him and makes him a Mentawai!

Yours truly,

Lim ShimriComment